Obituary: Jack Carr, mathematician and Emeritus professor

Born: 29 August 1948, East Heddon, Northumberland. Died: 14 July 2016, Edinburgh.

Jack Carr, mathematician and Heriot-Watt professor. Picture: Contributed
Jack Carr, mathematician and Heriot-Watt professor. Picture: Contributed

Professor Jack Carr, an internationally renowned mathematician, pursued mathematics and later mathematical education from pure love for the subject.

He was unassuming, motivated neither by material gain nor even a great desire for professional advancement. His research and teaching were grounded in impeccably high academic standards, comprehensive knowledge, and a rare talent to quickly identify the essential core of any problem. He readily explained his insights in patient and simple terms both to students and to many others who approached him for help. Among several visits abroad, he spent the year 1978-79 at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. There, he presented a series of lectures, which led to his book, Applications of Centre Mani-fold Theory. This has been cited over 2,500 times and still remains in print as a key reference in research and teaching. His total research output, largely into nonlinear dynamical systems, was not large by modern standards, but has stimulated scores of related studies by other authors. His last paper was completed only a few days before he died.

John Carr, known to everyone as Jack, was born at and grew up on Birds Hill Farm in East Heddon, Northumberland. Circumstances meant that the whole family, including young Jack and his two older brothers, shared in running the farm. The family later moved to Ryton, County Durham, where Jack missed a year’s schooling due to illness.

He left school at 15 to become an apprentice GPO telephone engineer, and at night school taught himself advanced mathematics using books from the local library. The GPO, recognising his ability, sponsored his undergraduate mathematics degree at the University of Bath from where he graduated with outstanding first class honours in 1971.

There followed postgraduate study at Oxford University, supervised by Dr Bryce Mcleod, and the award of a DPhil in 1974. It was at Oxford that he met his wife Teresa. In the same year that he gained his Oxford degree, he was appointed to a mathematics lectureship at Heriot-Watt University where he chose to spend the rest of his academic career. Promotion was rapid. He gained a professorship in 1988, was head of department from 1992-1996, and was elected to a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1986.

He was a major influence in the department’s development, providing wise guidance, and pragmatic advice. For example, eager young staff were recommended to “teach the students you have, not the students you wish you had”.

He was actively engaged in links successfully forged with the Edinburgh University department that created both the International Centre for Mathematical Sciences, and the Maxwell Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Jack also dedicated his services to the wider mathematics community both in Scotland and internationally. Under RSE auspices, during 1991-2006, Teresa and he jointly organised and with the help of teachers presented a hugely successful series of Masterclasses presented to more than 1,000 primary school children all over Scotland.

He pioneered distance learning courses across the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and this first-hand experience significantly contributed to the foundation of a scheme that now operates among eight Scottish universities.

Towards the end of his career and even after official retirement, Jack strongly supported the department’s involvement in the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and regularly visited its Ghana centre, often twice a year, to lecture and supervise projects.

He leaves an indelible legacy which will long be cherished by those who knew him personally and by those who are yet to know him through his work.

Jack died after a short illness borne with fortitude and his customary impish humour. He is survived by his wife Teresa, their children, Sam, Nancy and Emily, and two grandchildren.